What does actor Robert De Niro have to say about a man who is serving a 150-year jail sentence for conning US$60bil (RM260bil) from his investors?

“What he did was beyond my comprehension,” De Niro shared during a Television Critics Association event in Los Angeles recently.

The 73-year-old actor, who has made a career out of playing iconic characters like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Vito Corleone in The Godfather II, is playing real-life former stockbroker Bernie Madoff in the HBO TV movie The Wizard Of Lies. In 2009, Madoff was convicted ofmasterminding one of the biggest financial frauds in United States history.

De Niro expressed a disdain for someone like Madoff who used his influence to manipulate the trust of others.

“He’s a classic example of letting people come to him and get to a position where they would think it’s an honour for him to take their money. And that’s a classic con situation that you see in all walks of life. He was in that position and he used it,” De Niro added.

The show focuses on what happens when Madoff’s schemes begin to unravel and how this affects those closest to him. De Niro is drawn to finding out for himself what could possibly be the reason behind Madoff’s behaviour.

The actor thinks Madoff tried to con his way into an unattainable lifestyle: “He must have had some kind of very strong disdain for people. Maybe because he wasn’t from a certain world that he was in.”

The Wizard Of Lies also stars Michelle Pfeiffer as De Niro’s on-screen wife Ruth Madoff. It seems that the only thing De Niro could understand from playing Madoff is that his wife and children were unaware of his schemes.

“The only things I do feel strongly about is that he didn’t tell his kids and he didn’t tell his wife. But everyone around him probably had an idea. They just didn’t want to look too deeply because they knew something wasn’t quite right,” he said.

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Michelle Pfeiffer who has starred with De Niro in three other films reunites with him to play on-screen wife Ruth.

De Niro, who has two Academy awards – Best Supporting Actor in 1975 for The Godfather II and Best Actor in 1981 for Raging Bull – is not very forthcoming about how he approached playing Madoff.

He said he “spoke to people” and read some books, like the one written by journalist Diana B. Hen-riques on which The Wizard Of Lies is based: The Wizard Of Lies: Bernie Madoff And The Death Of Trust.

“I didn’t meet him (Madoff) but I did quite a fair amount of research on it,” De Niro said.

When probed further on what aspect of Madoff’s physical behaviour or look he adapted to play the character, De Niro simply shrugged the question off.

“Well, I don’t know if I can answer that. And I studied as much as I could. There wasn’t a lot of him but I observed the visual stuff of him and his behaviour and the way he talked. And that’s it,” he said.

Making it look real

Fortunately, Henriques, who plays herself in The Wizard Of Lies, was there to share some insight into why De Niro makes a compelling and believable Madoff.

The journalist said De Niro had already done extensive homework on Madoff by the time they got to the set.

She recalled a scene where her character interviews Madoff in prison: “At one point, Barry (Levinson, the director) had this brilliant idea of having Bob and I improvise questions and answers for what seemed to go on for hours and hours.

“This was not hard for me; I’m a journalist (who is used to) asking questions. But Bob is having to answer those questions extemporaneously out of Bernie Madoff’s brain. And I made a vow right then and there to never take investment advice from Bob De Niro, just in case he’s channelling his inner Bernie. It was so convincing.”

De Niro, who actually has business investments in film production, restaurants, and hotels, laughed. He then said: “Wait a minute. I have some legitimate …” before trailing off.

So, is there a reason people should invest in a show like The Wizard Of Lies? De Niro prefers to let viewers come up with their own interpretations.

He simply believes there will be more productions like The Wizard Of Lies to highlight real issues people would encounter every day.

“The problems that we have now, that we’re about to face, we’re about to see, witness, experience … it’s going to happen, though. I’m sure of that.”

The Wizard Of Lies premieres May 21 at 8am on HBO (Astro Ch 411).